The Help, adapted from Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller about black maids and their white employers in circa 1963 Jackson, Mississippi, might be the most surprising film of the year.
Mainstream works of art about combating Southern racism have tended to follow the To Kill a Mockingbird pattern: dignified, middle-class white hero/audience stand-in battles lower-class racist white villain (the sweaty redneck, the sheet-wearing Klansman, the straw-chewing, Bull Connor-esque sheriff), while African-American characters are reduced to bystanders or sidekicks in their own story. On the surface, The Help looks like more of the same: It's about a young, privileged white woman (Emma Stone's "Skeeter") who returns home to Jackson with an Ole Miss journalism degree and convinces the black maids employed by her society friends to tell their stories, anonymously, for a potential book.
But The Help tweaks and twists the format in unexpected ways. For starters, Skeeter is less a crusader than a conduit — naïve, opportunistic, uncertain, and not the true lead you might expect if you're coming to the material cold. And the antagonists here — aside from an unseen governor and the White Citizens' Council — are pretty young Junior Leaguers. Driving the story as much as Skeeter are the first two maids she partners with: Aibileen (Viola Davis), a careful, perceptive older woman who has made her career providing care — and love — to white children who still "grow up to be just like their mothers," and Minny (Octavia Spencer, who, like writer/director Tate Taylor, is a longtime Stockett cohort), a revered cook whose strong will and sharp tongue constantly endanger her employment.
This model adaptation is more coherently plotted than Stockett's novel and makes great choices about what to keep, what to jettison, and what to condense. Perhaps most crucial was Taylor's decision to narrow the film's perspective. The novel is told, alternately, in the voice of the three roughly equal protagonists. While this trio remains at the core, in the movie it is Aibileen's voice that is privileged. She's the sole off-screen narrator and the film — as in the book — both begins and ends with her experience.
During Aibileen and Skeeter's first meeting to work on the book, Aibileen cautions Skeeter that she may not like what she hears about white people, and this feels like a meta moment, letting some in the audience know to brace themselves for a film perhaps less comforting than they're anticipating.
The Help, which was shot in Greenwood, Mississippi, with several Memphians on the crew, consistently takes turns you may not be expecting. On multiple occasions, it sets up big laugh, revels in it, and then pivots sharply into a deeper emotion, into sorrow or fear. It literally has audiences careening from belly laughs to tears in an instant, with both reactions fully earned. A lesser work wouldn't make that pivot.
If the film version of The Help is ultimately better than the book it's based on, among the reasons is that the book doesn't have Viola Davis. Davis, an Oscar nominee in 2009 for her supporting turn in Doubt and sure to be one again, supplies a gravity and emotional depth that Stockett can't quite create on the page. And she leads a strong, deep cast.
The Help features more good female roles — and performances — than you typically find in a month's worth of Hollywood releases, showcasing actresses ranging from the 22-year-old Stone to a 77-year-old Cicely Tyson, book-ending sharp turns from veterans (Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney) and emerging stars (Jessica Chastain, Aunjanue Ellis, Bryce Dallas Howard) alike.
Opened Wednesday, August 10th